Adaptogens: Herbs that help you process stress

By Marcie Bower, Lic.Ac.

This post is copied from our older, original blog. Original post date 5/5/2017.

Adaptogens are a category of herbs that exert a normalizing effect on body processes and help the body to better tolerate stress. They have been shown to increase the body’s resistance to myriad types of stress, including physical, emotional, chemical, and biological. Furthermore, they are able to counteract, reduce, or negate the negative body processes that can normally result from these stressors. This means while we can’t always change the source of your stress, these herbs have been shown to change how your body reacts to it.

Most herbs that are considered to be adaptogens come from forms of traditional medicine that have been practiced for thousands of years. These herbs have been used medicinally since long before we knew about their myriad biochemical effects in the body. Many of the most common adaptogenic herbs come from Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurveda (traditional Indian Medicine.)

Adaptogens are unique in that they exert numerous, at times contradictory, effects on a biochemical level in the body. For instance, some adaptogens have been shown to both increase blood pressure in cases of low blood pressure, and reduce blood pressure in cases of hypertension (high blood pressure.) Thus they are said to have a homeostatic effect on the body, meaning bringing the body back into balance.

Through myriad biological effects including modulating formation of stress hormones (corticosteroids and ACTH), regulating secretion of numerous stress hormones (including catecholamines), regulating central nervous system function, reducing oxidative stress and increasing protein synthesis, adaptogens are known to improve mood, increase energy, improve sleep quality, regulate  immunity, and increase focus.

From a modern understanding of the body, we know that adaptogens are particularly helpful in cases of over exhaustion, adrenal fatigue, and prolonged periods of stress.

In their native traditions, adaptogenic herbs traditionally appear as “tonic” herbs, known to have strongly nourishing effects of various body systems. This makes sense given our modern understanding – they are offering the body additional support, and they are able to identify the areas that are lacking.

From a Chinese Medicine perspective, we use some of these adaptogenic herbs in traditional herbal formulas alongside other herbs to target a particular symptom or condition. Common Chinese Herbs that have adaptogenic properties include Reishi Mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), Cordyceps (Dong Chong Xia Cao), Licorice (Gan Cao/Zhi Gan Cao), Eleuthero (Ci Wu Jia), Panax Ginseng (Ren Shen), and Astragalus (Huang Qi).  Many traditional Chinese Medicine formulas contain these herbs naturally – in other cases, we can add these herbs into a traditional formula as appropriate for a particular condition. That way, you have the best of both worlds – the traditional use of these herbs, and the modern understanding of all the ways they can help you once in your body.

Stressed? It doesn’t have to feel as overwhelming or exhausting as it does.